Sunday, April 1, 2012

Movies for Guys Who Actually Like Movies - drinking matt

“It’s hard not to romanticize baseball”
                                                                  -    Billy Beane, Moneyball
            The New Yorker is the gold standard for magazine writing. While it’s not immune from criticism—a liberal, East Coast publication that’s either deeply entrenched in or overly withdrawn from celebrity culture, depending of course on who you ask—each week, the magazine presents a carefully selected menu of articles, writing that is a potent combination of well-respected and well-read. It’s intellectually engaged and still easily digested. It’s where most writers want to write. But the New Yorker is not without its detractors, at least amongst  the literary community; less due to its content but because of its style. While the magazine is well-rounded, covering all facets of esoterica in rapturous detail, its reportage is only to be presented sui generis, in the clear, clean prose that it has made famous.  Its “house style” is a beacon for readers, as its masthead guarantees that each piece will be full of straightforward and crisp prose. At the very least, a New Yorker article is always well-written. But for writers, the New Yorker limits the pallet: paint anything at all on any canvas you’d like, but you can only use the primary colors. Writing that appears in the New Yorker is, by definition, conspicuously inconspicuous. As such, the writer must have the technique and skill not to call attention to his technique and skill. While this is a demonstration of aptitude, it’s also quite the handcuff, as it stops writers from taking the risks they might indulge when working under a different imprint. Writers who are more experimental, or stylistic – they might describe themselves as writers who not only love to write, but the actual art of writing – are forced to either suffocate their impulses or to find a different periodical. This isn’t to say that the New Yorker doesn’t allow for good writing: it’s filled with great writing, often the finest in contemporary literature. However, it’s exclusively a certain kind of writing: plainly and always good but always very plainly.

            It is perhaps no surprise then, to think that Hollywood suffers from the same problem. The premiere directors in the film game have stellar technical abilities, honed through years of training and genepools of talent. But there’s a code – spoken or unspoken – amongst filmmakers, that at the peak of the filmmaking spectrum, where commerce meets criticism, directors are not supposed to indulge all of their artistic desires. This style can’t be wed to any particular party: it might be studio executives expecting that films are shot a certain way; an American school of plainspoken filmmaking that most directors subscribe to; or that the aggregate product of each director’s process leads to straightforward and plainly presented films. But ultimately, Hollywood films are presented in a manner akin to the New Yorker’s prose. Shots are not to be angled or lingered, music is not to be featured, dialogue and actions are always highlighted, and artistry and technique are never shown off. Now, Hollywood allows itself one luxury in this respect: it showcases filmmaking technique that is only made possible by the largesse of budget—see Messrs. Cameron, Bay, Nolan. This is the same sort of prize the New Yorker allots itself when writers produce a twenty-five page article, the privilege of being privileged, this being the kind of thing that we let ourselves do because we are the only people who can do this. However, the overall message of both Hollywood and The New Yorker transcends mediums: at the highest levels of mainstream storytelling, the story is told in the plainest manner.
            Thus, Drive is an intriguing film because it refuses to follow these rules. Quite overtly, the film implicitly reminds the viewer that it is a film, and because of its self-conscious stylization, a very good one. Its story is as plain as possible: The Driver (Ryan Gosling) is a Hollywood stunt driver by day and getaway driver by night. He becomes involved with two residents in his apartment building, a woman and her young son, until it is revealed to both The Driver and the viewer that she is not unattached: her newly-reformed husband has just been released from prison. Apparently, the husband still has some debts to pay to some sadistic individuals, and The Driver offers to help out. Histrionics ensue.
            Drive is not your typical Hollywood film, and perhaps it should not be classified that way. It’s based on a short novel by James Sallis I have not read, and the book has described as an existentialist noir. This style would presumably play out in prose that is epigrammatic, bleak, and stark, and the movie works hard to create that exact vibe. The Driver, the film’s main character – though I’d argue that the main character is that it is a film itself – is never named, and he speaks approximately twenty lines of dialogue throughout the movie. Gosling intends to capture his character with the brooding and blank contortions that his facial muscles have mastered, as these expressions are evidently supposed to be signals of deep thinking. The effect of this however, is a resounding blankness, which actually works to great effect: the plainness of Gosling’s faces underscores the plainness of The Driver’s moral code, which doubles as the film’s underlying message, that there is a price that must be paid for doing bad things with good intentions to bad people.
            While Drive has been promoted as a blockbuster film, this is probably due to its cast: Gosling, Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, Sons of Anarchy’s Ron Pearlman, the multi-talented Albert Brooks, a veritable who’s who of ad-free cable television. But the film’s tone is more characteristic of independent films, or even European art cinema. The film’s director, Nicholas Winding Refn, is a native Dane, and his previous films have mostly featured other European company.  He uses the film as a tour de force demonstating his own directorial ability, presenting a series of well-formed pastiches: one section is reminiscent of an 80s car movie that would probably involve James Spader; another of a graphic and violent B-film whose gore is the main attraction. Winding Refn manages to avoid sacrificing the story with this approach, but perhaps that’s because there isn’t much of a story to tell; after the thrilling standalone vignette that prefaces the opening credits, Drive seems almost a vehicle for Winding Refn to play camera games, using story as the slatting for his directorial panache, as opposed to what’s usually the other way around.
            I have failed to mention Quentin Tarantino up to this point, and he is the antidote to my earlier theory, that suggests that all Hollywood filmmakers are expected to direct their films in the plainest manner possible. Tarantino’s style – and his usage of violence as a panacea – is the underlying character of his work, the New York of his Sex and The City, the unending internal guilt of his Sopranos. Likewise, Winding Refn borrows a page from Tarantino’s book, as violence is not just the reason moviegoers have rushed to see Drive, but the reason that Drive should be seen—and not read, heard, or Wiki-ed. As is the case with Tarantino’s films, the violence is both graphic and comic, trenchant and animated.  It serves as a storytelling technique, by telling us something about the kind of characters the Driver and his nemeses are, but also as a showcase, as the violence itself littered with the sort of creative allusions that stuntmen, choreographers and makeup artists fantasize about. Unfortunately, as the kniving continually takes precedence over the narrative, the gore gradually loses its shocking punch, instead growing increasingly satirical. The characters in Drive are barely fleshed out: one can only make the generalization that these are amoral men willing to go to extreme lengths to get what they want. And so, the violence appears not as natural outgrowth of their characters but the reason for their utter existence – they are alive only for the sake of killing people.
            It is strange then, that Drive has gotten such strong reviews, from both audiences and critics. Part of this is due to strong and subdued acting performances from the movie’s stars, their characters are very different than any we’ve seen the four actors previously inhabit. But additionally, the film has a strange relationship with its masculine audience (presumably, the girls who like this movie are mostly there to see The Gosling). Drive appears to be the rare movie that was made for men without demeaning them. Typically resigned to being treated as highly conditioned mammals waiting for the next in a line of highly predictable and very expensive explosions, this movie gives men—and the movie is almost exclusively populated and driven by its male characters—the same artfulness that women receive from period romances: a color, a sophistication, a style. Now, there is another well-known director who makes real movies for real men: the aforementioned Quentin Tarantino. However, Tarantino perhaps the premiere auteur in the man-movie genre, is exclusively a writer-director (as are the Coens and Nolan, two other filmmakers I might hose into the “masculine” subset); as such, his films are tightly crafted to work within the guidelines of his style. His entire vision imbues itself from genesis to post-production—everything he makes is always entirely a Tarantino film in every way. While Drive, on account of its sparse story, has a degree of artistic consistency, the audience can’t help but feel that along the way, the message has been a bit muddled. As this is a film that is for by and about men, one is struck by the sexism so obvious in the film’s subtext: that men simply don’t know how to talk about their problems.
            Moneyball, the recent film about the 2002 Oakland Athletics, takes the entirely opposite approach. It’s another film by and about men (as most films are!) but men are only half of its intended audience. It’s a film that operates in the new zone of high-profile filmmaking: a star-laden, well-credentialed, tightly written, Oscar contender, but without any special effects or superheroes, it’s still worried about making back its budget. Call it an apartment-complex buster. Moneyball is a strange film, although not for the reasons that critics might have you believe. They have appraised the film as unique because of its subject matter, suggesting that the film treats the sabermetric approach – identifying great baseball players based on  data as opposed to impeccable deltoids – as its leading character.  This isn’t really true. These critics have paid too much attention to Moneyball, Michael Lewis’ excellent 2003 book (and the basis for the film), which goes into full narrative detail about the origins and usage of sabermetrics.           
            Moneyball the movie, however, has sabermetrics as its theme, but not as its star. The film is actually a character piece, focusing on the life and struggles of Billy Beane, the Athletics’ iconoclast general manager. This is largely to Lewis’ credit: having re-read Moneyball, I see that his ability to oscillate between detailing the sabermetric approach, the ongoing narrative of the Athletics season and their players, and Beane’s own personal history is truly brilliant (it’s actually incredible how many of the key lines of dialogue are stolen from Lewis’ prose).  While the film’s production struggles have been well-documented, after watching it, it’s quite clear that this was a movie waiting to happen.
            Moneyball is a classic underdog story, and the sabermetric conceit that all the critics have focused on is a bit ridiculous – that underdogs need to find a unique way to beat the bigger and stronger favorite is a truth literally as old as David and Goliath. The film remains strange, however, because of how sparsely it operates. While Drive eschews dialogue for the luxuries of moviemaking—tons of killing, lots of colors, and supercutting—Moneyball is mostly people sitting around talking about baseball. This is partly due to the constraints of its subject matter but the film is shot in a very particular manner: Beane jiggles from conference call to conference call as he tries to land unheralded relief pitcher Ricardo Rincon, who eventually becomes a journeyman pitcher for the Oakland A’s, and they lose a future all-star in the process. Moneyball treats this trade as the highpoint of a great drama.
            In a sense, this is a sports movie for people who don’t like sports movies.  Moneyball doesn’t bother with most of the typical sports movie clichés - training sequences, pep talks, forced moments of team bonding – and instead focuses on Beane, as a manager, failed player, visionary – a man. This is largely due to its tightly-crafted script, written by Academy Award winners Steven Zaillan and Aaron Sorkin. Bennett Miller, the film’s director, smartly defers to the screenplay, letting the dialogue and character portrayals speak for themselves. (Credit especially goes to Sorkin: this is the first time he’s had to write characters whose main trait is not being insanely articulate, and he did a fantastic job. He is truly the best in the business.)  And while the film ending was forced by the constraints of real-life (spoiler: the 2002 Oakland Athletics didn’t win the World Series) the movie deals with it admirably, closing the film by focusing on the character of Beane, and subtly meditating on the meaning of success.
            What’s interesting about both of these films, apropos their entirely disparate contents and approach, is how seriously they take themselves. Like a writer with a Pulitzer, both Drive and Moneyball are determined to be movies that are excellent and different than the rest in their genre. They constantly remind the viewer of their pedigree, which is very strange, given that they are each ostensibly genre films that should be predominantly aimed at male audiences. In some ways, this is refreshing: it’s nice to see that some producers are committed to treating a commercial film like a piece of art; nuanced, sparse, unique. But in other respects, it’s very strange: although the films are well-made, they each ultimately rely on the hoaky clichés of their genre, so why aren’t they willing to admit that?
           In the midst of thinking about these films, while shuffling through Bruce Springsteen’s latest album Wrecking Ball, I found myself listening to his old classic “Thunder Road”. Springsteen is an American icon and one of my favorite musicians, although he’s often incredibly clichéd, singing the same tired blue-collar songs about the same tired blue-collar stories. This would be a reason to avoid Springsteen, except for the fact that this is why I love Springsteen: I come for the cliché. Springsteen is a brilliant musician because while he doesn’t avoid clichés – and clichés are important, which is why they’re cliché – he doesn’t abuse them either: his songs are more universal than everyone else’s and they’re still well-written, creative, and musical. They’re pieces of art.  Working within a well-tread trope doesn’t strangle creativity; singing songs about the Great American Dream doesn’t mean that they can’t be extremely well-written. Effectively, this is the opposite of The New Yorker problem. The New Yorker’s writers are so excellent because they don't let the house style stultify them. They write excellent pieces - that happen to follow the imposed rules. Drive and Moneyball are not movies filled with perfect choices—sometimes their focus on style interfered with their actual substance. But it's refreshing to see that directors are willing to make commercial, genre films with the same daring and voice that they apply to their pet projects, especially when these films are intended for an audience that is usually underestimated and condescended to—adult men with typical taste. As Billy Beane says so aptly, in a movie that's about trying to avoid doing so, "it's hard not to romanticize baseball". It's usually worth it.

Drive - a different kind of action movie. Not sure every facet worked, and the lack of character development was a bit frustrating, but you'll be glad you went. 79.

Moneyball - a dialogue heavy story that is at times inspiring, and at times very slow. Not sure you'd like it if you weren't a baseball fan, though the writing is sharp, and Brad Pitt gives one of the best performances of his career. 83.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Dave Matthews Has No Idea His Why Music Is So Popular - drinking matt

CHARLOTTSEVILLE, VA - A soon to be published profile of Dave Matthews, lead singer of the eponymous Dave Matthews Band, reveals that Matthews has no idea why his music has become so popular. Says Matthews, "The band started out as a practical joke. We thought it'd be really funny to combine black guys who play orchestral instruments with white guys who sing in nonsensical metaphor. It was supposed to be ironic - it was the early 90s." Matthews first noted the paradoxical nature of the audience's response to the band's music after he received an award for his 6th straight platinum album. "It's weird, people keep buying our records, but no one actually likes any of our songs. They don't get played on the radio or at parties - we just get a lot of requests for guitar tabs so people can play our songs at campfires."

Matthews makes regular efforts to connect with his fanbase, in part driven by his need to understand the motives of his adoring supporters. "The fans seem to always ask me about 'that song they love'  that talks about the similarities between animals and abusing nature and human existence. I'm never sure which song they're talking about: Ants Marching, Don't Drink the Water, Shake Me Like a Monkey, The Dreaming Tree, Alligator Pie.." At this point, Matthews interrupted the interview to visit his personal discography, creating a complete listing of the songs that the fans might be referring to (he found 34 in total). Currently in between tours, Matthews is working away at a major sociological project, he calls "Polar Bear Waterfall: Live at The Library". Specifically, Matthews is using his own personal files of financial data and accumulated fanmail as counter evidence to the widespread demographic claims that only 4% of Americans are Jewish, only 11% of Americans regularly smoke marijuana, and only 18% of Americans have nostalgic memories of summer camp.


Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Joy of Baseball - arkell max

Baseball was losing. In the battle of ways to occupy my time, baseball had dropped from a cozy first place lead in the standings to a distant after thought. 1996 was an easy time to be a baseball-loving boy in Toronto. Staying up late and watching the playoffs was how my parents rewarded their son. October on a chilly night, with players wearing turtlenecks beneath their jerseys and breathing fog all across the outfield, I had found my heroes. Like my idols, alongside all the other boys my age, I spent afternoons daydreaming of the fall night I’d finally win a World Series. My mosquito baseball team even rehearsed celebration pileups after practice. The season never really ended: the winter was just preparation for the summer to come.  My ten-year-old self spent November to March trying to work in a new mitt. I would try anything, putting it under the couch cushion while I watched TV, and then wrapping it in rubber bands and with a  baseball, to leave it hibernating in the freezer. All that mattered was that it was ready for action come spring. I would play catch with my dad until it snowed or was too cold, and even on those frost-bitten days I wanted to stay outside; like the guys on the posters, I wanted to see my breath when I threw the ball. I kept my Seattle Mariners 7¼ inch New Era fitted hat in the best condition a ten old boy is capable of. Those hats were (and still are) an expensive purchase, but looked so beautiful and professional that they were worthy of the best care a ten year old boy could muster.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Five Players To Watch - arkell nick

The 2011 playoffs have just started, and for a non MLB-TV subscribing Canadian like myself, that means I will be treated to watching baseball players I don’t often get to see. Call it lack of commitment, ignorance or east coast bias; there are teams and games I just don’t get to fully appreciate during the regular season. Here are some of the players I’m most looking forward to getting a closer look at.
Matt Moore – Tampa Bay Rays
Yes, he plays in the same division as the Blue Jays, but as of now Moore has only pitched 9.1 innings in his major league career, so I should be absolved from not knowing much about the lefty. In that 9.1 innings, Moore has 15 strikeouts. By all accounts Moore has electric stuff and could be a difference maker if the Rays should choose to deploy him (that in itself may be an interesting storyline too). Josh Beckett’s coming out party in the 2003 playoffs was one of the most exciting elements of the Marlins’ World Series run. Moore could be this year’s Josh Beckett.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

It's New TV Week - suave anders

It’s new TV week, a time that inspires joy (there’s new television) or horror (school is starting, it’s getting cold) in many a young boy or girl. Heck, it even inspires joy in middle-aged people. I don’t know about old people though, they’re weird, and for the most part don’t know how the internet works.

Anyway, here are five returning shows you might be missing but should check out.

1.     Archer – Thursdays at 10:30 pm, FX

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Consesequence of Innocence - drinking matt

A surprising coincidence occurred this past Sunday, as HBO chose to air the series finale of Entourage on the 10th anniversary of September 11th. I’ve spent the past week riveted by this concurrence, trying to draw out some sort of extra-textual conclusions, and there’s no obvious connection between the two events. While Curb Your Enthusiasm’s season finale preempted Entourage, that choice seemed rather appropriate: this season took place in New York, Larry David is a comedian of incomparable talent (what better way to get our collective mind off of the atrocity?) and if David was ever looking for an opportunity to truly push the limits of good taste, here it was, served on a silver platter. 1 But besides the risk that not enough attention would be paid to Entourage’s final episode, HBO’s programming choice was odd for two reasons (surely they could have easily pushed things forwards or backwards a week and avoided this entire oddity): firstly, you’d expect that they’d have used this opportunity to present one of their trademark documentaries on the anniversary of the attack, highlighting their ongoing series of innovative journalism. 2 But more philosophically, and patriotically, you’d assume that HBO would avoid even the slightest implication that they, as a network, are insouciant about the anniversary, not only by subtly eschewing the memorial, but also by actively promoting the finale of Entourage – and all that it stands for.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Art of Fiction - drinking matt

There are less great sports novels than there should be.1 This can be attributed to a number of obvious causes: sports fans don’t read novels, most novelists don’t know (or care) about sports, athletes don’t write, and the torrent of excellent and already existent sportswriting renders most attempts at novelization futile. These are all reasonable explanations, and each one surely contributes to the dearth of sporting fiction. But I propose that there is also something fundamentally different at work here: that sports defy novelization, because sports themselves are already perfect stories. Unlike the continuous arc of life, from which novelists are free to mold, morph and slice at their behest, sports exist as precise dramatic outlines, with blank spaces to fill in for winners and losers, rules and violators, heroes and villains, beginnings and endings. All that is required to turn sports into stories is the addition of the right characters.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Bright Future, Missing Link - arkell nick

You don’t need to be the happiest man in Springfield to admit the Blue Jays future is starting to look pretty bright. The lineup features one of baseball’s best hitters in Jose Bautista. Yunel Escobar, JP Arencibia, Colby Rasmus and Brett Lawrie have the potential to become valuable contributors for years to come. Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow have established themselves as top of the rotation starters. If Travis Snider can’t figure things out, recent history suggests Alex Anthopoulos will be able to trade him for Albert Pujols straight up. Couple this with the fact that Toronto is probably already better than some of this year’s to be determined playoff entrants (AL Central/NL West, I’m looking at you...) and there really is a lot to be excited about. So with all the positives pouring out of camp Blue Jays, there is one thing the team may still be missing if they want to make a playoff push two or three years down the road: another frontline starting pitcher. 

Monday, August 29, 2011

A Rude A Layton-ing - driver dan

I have been of voting age roughly the length of Jack Layton’s leadership of the NDP Party and have voted for them in every federal election since I was eligible. This occurred partially because I have been privileged to live in ridings that held great local candidates (David Christopherson, Chris Charlton, Olivia Chow), and partially because they were the closest federal party to my political views. I never voted for the NDP because of Jack Layton. In fact, I might have voted for them despite his leadership. Now, I’ve seen Jack speak, in a non-election year, and I envied all the same qualities the media has highlighted in the past few days. He was very likeable, knowledgeable and passionate, however he didn’t inspire me. He never promised me the hope of winning over millions of Canadians in an election. In fact, every adult I knew would consistently remind me of that. The NDP were nothing on the national landscape and Jack was a no-name city councillor. I tried to remain optimistic. As a young passionate leftist, I believed the world would change. However, like most (not Jack Layton), my hope slowly began to erode into cynicism.  

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Champ Is Here - drinking matt

Continuing in the tradition of rap albums that attempt to test the immutable properties of formal logic, Watch The Throne, as both a thesis and motive, questions the additive property: does (Kanye West + Jay-Z) = (Kanye West & Jay-Z)? 1 The notion that drives this experiment - that great minds collaborating are capable of exponentially greater work - is intriguing, and is the fundamental impetus behind American businesses designed to foster maximum amounts of creativity (see: Apple, Pixar, McKinsey). It would seem then that Watch The Throne is a brilliant idea, the first hip-hop album to finally put into practice a respected business principle. But believing this requires overlooking the communal aspect of hip-hop: no one important, not even an irreducible force of nature like Kanye West, makes an album by themselves in their basement.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Smug, The Self-Loathing and the Surreptitious: Laughter, Unadorned - drinking matt

2011 has thus far been a very eventful year for comedy. 1&1a The most respected comedy on television celebrated its 100th episode, an event that was unintentionally punctuated by a homophobic rant by one of its stars and a critically acclaimed memoir from its creator. The best comedy on television said goodbye to its iconic lead. The most popular comedy on television was the impetus for a very public meltdown, which may or may not have been its own form of comedy - as ongoing performance art. Marc Maron continued his rise to fame as a comedian who is actually a podcaster that regularly gets comedy's brightest talents to open up their souls in his garage (and it's a great show). President Obama killed twice in one weekend, once (more conventionally) by sting operation and once by stand-up. Ricky Gervais apparently crossed some sacred line in the sand, by making fun of celebrities with issues. The ultimate celebration of non-comedy -- non-comedian celebrities trying to be funny by being not funny at while doing a  job exclusively done by unanimously funny people -- ruined the Oscars. The highly anticipated sequel to the Hangover ended up being the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all time, although by every account, it wasn't funny in the least.  And this is probably the year that women have finally asserted themselves as comedians - no caveats: Fey's best-selling book and Poehler's commencement speech at Harvard (and her continued excellence on Parks and Rec) have lead the way, but Bridesmaids, as both as a critical darling and smash hit, is the movement's apotheosis, and the fact that a number of respected actresses -- Diaz, Aniston, Kunis, Portman -- have taken focused turns towards pure slapstick only proves the point.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

James Franco To Cure Cancer In Next Project- drinking matt

New Haven, CONN -- James Franco, in the midst of writing a first-hand non-fiction account of poverty in Manilla for an upcoming journalism competition, told onlookers that he had come up with his next project: "I'm planning to cure cancer. I think I have a novel solution for the problem that's going to be really good." Franco claimed that he had come up with this solution while reading commentaries of Beckett's plays for his weekly seminar, a part of his Ph.D program in English Literature at Yale University. Says Franco, "I feel that cancer is really an untapped area for good performance art. The patients are putting on the act of suffering, the doctors are acting out the role of people who are trying to find a cure for cancer. Cancer makes such a strong statement about the ultimate mortal nature of the human condition. It's really powerful stuff." Franco's assistant, Dana Morgan, was not surprised by his announcement. "He's always wanted to do something cancer-related. Cancer and submarine design are really the two holes in James' career. I think I know what we'll be working on next."

World leading cancer expert Roy Herbst of the Yale Cancer Center was excited to hear that Franco would be ending his career.  He stated, "I once stood behind James at Starbucks. He asked me what I did for a living. And right then, as he ordered his latte, he said he figured out a cure. I'm not surprised. He does have an 'unusually high metabolism for productivity.'" Franco was itching to get experimentation underway, as he claimed to have a twelve minute break in his schedule six days from now that he was planning to use to complete the project. He was also excited about the Nobel Prize that was sure to reward his cure, as he was planning to use the Prize itself as part of an upcoming performance sculpture exhibition.